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Toyota opens its fuel cell patents in bid to make hydrogen cars happen

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Toyota has been pushing hard on hydrogen over the past year as a viable alternative to pure electric vehicles — it showed a prototype version of the Mirai here at CES last year — and it's taking another swing today with the announcement that it's offering over 5,680 patents relating to hydrogen and fuel cell technology royalty-free. The patents cover everything from in-car software and systems to actual hydrogen production.

Tesla made a similar move earlier this year "in the spirit of the open source movement, for the advancement of electric vehicle technology," in the words of CEO Elon Musk. Ironically, automotive giant Toyota may need help bolstering industry support more than upstart Tesla: Superchargers are already deployed globally, and the company doesn't need any help making EVs viable. In Toyota's case, hydrogen only works if there's a robust network of refueling stations for fuel cell car owners to frequent — and right now, they simply don't exist on any scale.

Toyota

Tesla made a similar move earlier this year

Hydrogen production and supply patents will be made available royalty-free indefinitely, while Toyota's vehicle patents will stay free until 2020; the company presumably hopes that gives other automakers enough time to spin up development on a vehicle in a way that will keep R&D costs low. In return, Toyota is asking (but not requiring) that companies offer a reciprocal agreement on their own patents. Patent-sharing deals are common across the automotive and tech industries, so such an arrangement wouldn't be out of the ordinary.

The Mirai, Toyota's production hydrogen sedan, will go on sale this year — but only in California at first, where it's been subsidizing the build-out of a modest network of stations. Several states in the US Northeast will be next to get it. Honda is also working on a new fuel cell vehicle — but absent broad industry participation, it'll be extremely difficult to get infrastructure in place everywhere.

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